Transcript: Dr. Terry Kupers’s remarks on solitary confinement in California at UC Hastings on March 19, 2013

Partial transcript of remarks by Dr. Terry Kupers, a forensic expert on mental health, on solitary confinement in California. The panel discussion was held at UC Hastings College of the Law on March 19, 2013.

I’m a psychiatrist. And what I do as a profession is I decide who’s normal and who’s not.

In our society, it is normal to ignore the torture of 70,000 people. As Charles [Carbone] said, there’s 70,000 people in long-term isolation. The normal U.S. citizen is absolutely oblivious to that going on and besides thinks it’s righteous that it goes on because these are heinous criminals.

You’ve just gotten a sample of what prisoners are like as human beings.

I’ve had the privilege of going into the prisons and jails and interviewing thousands of people on a court order because, believe me, the prison system wouldn’t let me in. But the judge says, “Let him in” and I go in. Two of my lawyers are here and my lawyers teach me most of what I know.

Azadeh [Zohrabi] and Charles are two of my legal team in the Ruiz case, which is about Pelican Bay and the hunger strike and gang validation.

When I go to court, attorneys tell me, “You are not talking about torture because in the United States, the courts don’t care about torture. The court cares about the Eighth Amendment – that is that United States citizens are entitled to not have cruel and unusual punishment, to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.”

In the United States with the Eighth Amendment and the international community with torture, it happens to be part of the definition of cruel and unusual punishment that if someone has a serious mental illness and is deprived of treatment, that’s an Eighth Amendment violation and that’s torture.

Well, in fact, the two are the same…I believe that torture and the Eighth Amendment violation are the same thing. It’s just that in the United States, we don’t like to talk about torture and that’s because we commit torture around the world.

So let me jump to an example of that.

Abu Ghraib. I mean, we were all horrified by Abu Ghraib, right? It’s normal operating procedure when [Donald] Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, apologized for Abu Ghraib. He apologized that the American people had to hear about it; he didn’t apologize for it happening. It’s normal operating procedure.

Think about what they did in Abu Ghraib. They humiliated. They destroyed the culture. They basically were intent on breaking people in a very brutal way, and they wanted that to last for the rest of their lives so that the people who were tortured at Abu Ghraib would not never after have a normal religious, sexual, whatever life – cultural life.

Now, let’s go to Pelican Bay. Pelican Bay is notorious for being a place where gang validated prisoners are placed.

I had the opportunity and privilege to interview the 10 named plaintiffs in the Ruiz v. Brown case, which is the case that just had a hearing on Thursday and our side won.

Those 10 prisoners led the hunger strike, where 6,000 prisoners in California went on a hunger strike.

In Pelican Bay, there’s terrible medical care. The medical care – I don’t think the lawyers would mind if I share this – the medical care is absolutely horrendous. It doesn’t meet human standard, much less Eighth Amendment.

And what the prisoners are told when they complain about the poor medical care is: “You should debrief and go somewhere else and you’ll get better medical care.”

Or if they complain about conditions or the lack of activity because there’s nothing to do there. You saw someone at the handball court by himself. That’s what’s called a recreation area – the yard. And “If you don’t like it, you should debrief and go somewhere else.”

Well, internationally, the United Nations program about torture, what they talk about is that torture is the infliction of wanton pain – psychological and physical – in order to do a number of things. One is to gain information from the person.

All right, let’s think about debriefing. So a person is being denied medical care, mental health care, the basic amenities of life and told, “If you want those things, you have to debrief.” Now, that’s torture. Isn’t that torture?

In other words, the prisoner’s being forced to basically snitch on other prisoners – that’s what debriefing means – in order to get medical treatment for their very serious medical illnesses.

And the list of problems with this kind of confinement goes on from there.

Solitary confinement causes massive psychiatric damage. That’s what I’m asked to testify about.

I consider it a great privilege, partly because I get to go and meet a population of people who are – one, they’re extraordinary. Prisoners as a group are – let me just say first – ordinary. That is, there are very bright prisoners. There are brilliant prisoners. Often I will meet brilliant people inside who have not had a college education, but they’re brilliant. Like our panelists.

Then – there’s a range. There’s some not so bright people. There’s some not so nice people.

But there’s also extremely kind people, extremely humane people. There are people who would risk death to bring the attention of a country that is oblivious to the 70,000 people in solitary confinement being tortured. In order to bring public attention to that unbelievable tragedy in the United States, they would risk death.

They know they’re not getting good medical care. They know they’re getting beaten regularly in a process called cell extraction. If they do the slightest thing wrong, a group of officers, come in, rush them in their cell, and beat them up. They know that the prisoner in the next cell had a heart attack and the guards laughed and didn’t come in for 6 hours and remove the person to a hospital and they died. So they know that nobody cares about them in the prison.

And they go on a hunger strike where they might die. And why did they do that? They did that – it’s a psychological interpretation if you want to look at it this way. And that is they say there’s something wrong with this country that you’re oblivious to torture of 70,000 people.

So they’re my heroes. They’ve been on hunger strikes. 6,000 prisoner went on hunger strike knowing that they’re going to get no sympathy in the prison system and that brought the attention of the world to the abuses that are going on in the prisons. Those abuses are torture, and we can talk more about what the definition of torture is.

So the United States commits torture in mass scale and nothing is said about it.

Let me talk about super max.

I’m an expert in the Ruiz case and I’m happy to do that. And actually, I’m learning – I’m doing research. This is my opportunity to go and talk to people who know a lot more about this than I do and find out what’s the harm.

We’ve arbitrarily drawn a line at 10 years.

The people – the 10 named plaintiffs – on average been in Pelican Bay SHU since ’90 when it opened and most of them were in the SHU before that. So they’ve had 20 to 30 years of SHU time. But we’ve drawn the line at 10 years. That is the class action in the Ruiz v. Brown case – it’s more than 10 years in the SHU.

And when the Madrid case happened, which was about the cruel and unusual punishment of being in the SHU, they’ve been there about 2 years because that case was tried in ’93-’94 and it had just opened in ’90. So now, we have people who have been there ever since!

What’s the additional harm? And I’m an expert – the psychiatrist. I go and talk to people, and I ask them, “So what’s it like?” And I’m going to go into court and report on that.

Let me say something about the kinds of symptoms. You all know of the SHU syndrome. That is, there’s a list of symptoms that happen typically to people in the SHU.

For instance, here’s a complaint that is universal around the country in the 70,000 people in long-term solitary confinement.

I ask them, “What do you do in your cell?” “Nothing. I tried to do some exercises but I don’t really have the motivation for it.”

“Well, why don’t you read?” “I can’t remember what I read 3 pages earlier so I lose the track and I just give up.”

All right, if one person told me that, I’d say, “Well, that’s interesting. Let’s do a study and see what’s going on with your brain.”

If many, many people tell me that, the majority of people in solitary confinement, I start thinking, “This is caused by solitary confinement.” Same is true of headaches. Same is true of not sleeping – chronically not sleep.

Suicide. You know, there’s a phenomenal statistic, which is absolutely mortifying, and that is in prison the suicide rate is very high. It’s approximately twice what it is in the community. That’s very high an epidemiology.

In any prison system, somewhere between 3% or 6% to 8% of the prisoners are in isolation at any given time. That’s a lot but it’s not 100%. 3% to 8% of prisoners are in isolation.

In California, I believe – Charles, I don’t know what you think this number is – but I believe it’s 6% in California. They say it’s 3%; they’re lying. It’s 6% at least. In Texas it’s 8%.

50% of the completed suicides – that means somebody is dead – happened among prisoners in isolation. That’s a phenomenal statistic. We have no better statistical proof of causality in the social sciences and in psychiatry. 50% of successful suicides in prison occur among the 3% to 8% of prisoners locked up in isolation.

Paranoia. Prisoners in isolation get paranoid. It’s reported around the country, and I go around and talk to people and I write articles about this, and I testify in court. Why do people in the SHU get paranoid?

Think about it. We all use paranoia as – it’s part of our epistemology. It’s happening all over the world.

I walk into a room. On the other side of the room, there are two people talking quietly and I think, for a moment, they’re talking about me, they’re saying something awful about me, and they’re going to do me harm. I walk over to them and they smile and they say “Hi, Terry. We were just talking about such and such.” And I have the thought – I was being paranoid.

We’re all paranoid everyday. We have negative thoughts about somebody – “So and so didn’t call me back. They must hate me, and I think it’s because of such and such.” I call up so and so and usually my wife tells me, “Call them up. Don’t be an idiot.” So I’d call them up and I say, “You haven’t called me back.” And they say, “I have cancer. I haven’t been calling anybody.” And I say, “Oh, I was being paranoid.” So we use paranoia.

Okay, you’re in a cell in a SHU all by yourself. The guards basically brutalize you, and you have nobody to talk to. You have to scream to talk to the person in the next cell and then everybody hears it. So you stopped talking. Then what happens? How do you know if guards are talking down the hallway – if they’re talking and you can’t hear what they’re saying – how do you know they’re not plotting to come and do a cell extraction on you? You don’t know it. You don’t have any way to check it out. And these kind of fears build up and you become paranoid.

So what I do is I go talk to a lot of guys in the SHU and they say I have paranoid ideas. And I say, “Oh, well, tell me about them.” And they tell me about it. What’s universal is the tendency to be paranoid.

There’s a tendency to be angry about the way you’re being treated and controlled. And there’s a fear that the anger is going to get out of control and you’re going to get into more trouble.

So one of the universal phenomenon in the SHU that I hear from guys all over the country – and gals, by the way, they’re in the SHUs – the women. It’s “I’m never going to get out of here.” I said, “What do you mean you’re never getting out of here?”

…We have indeterminate sentences for the SHU in California. It’s about your status. If you’re considered gang-affiliated, you’re going to be in SHU until you die. “Snitch, parole, and die” is the word in prison.

In other states, you get a year or a year-and-a-half. And I go and talk to guys and they tell me, “I’m never going to get out of here.” “What do you mean about – you’ve got a year.” And they said, “Yeah, but that’s a year ticket-free. I get so angry in here and I can’t control my temper. I’m going to mouth off at the guard. They’re going to give me another ticket. I’ve got another year. And that’s going to go on until I die.”

So the perception that they’re going to die in the SHU is actually objectively correct.

Let me just mention something about the use of SHUs. It’s a decision in the United States to demonize people – the worst of the worst – and put them in SHU.

I have to say I’m not impressed. I’m not impressed with how dangerous the people in SHU are. I’ve met some of the most wonderful people that I know in SHU.

Now, there are some monsters here and there. And there are some; they’re extremely rare. They’re people that can’t control their homicidal rage, and they’re in the SHU. Or they’re not – they’re running the place. [Audience laughter] But there are some people – they’re extremely rare.

Most people in the SHU got there because somebody doesn’t like them. A lot of them are political. A lot of them are jailhouse lawyers. A lot of them are simply too smart.

Guards are sort of a lesser status than police. You don’t have to pass the police academy to be a prison guard. And a lot of guards come from rural areas. And you know, I don’t know what the requirements are today but it used to be a high school diploma, which you can fake. And when they meet a very bright prisoner – because there are a lot of very, very bright prisoners – the prisoner is likely to have done poorly in school and be very, very bright; guards are intimidated and they tend to beat up and give tickets to very, very bright prisoners. So very bright prisoners end up in SHU.

So I go in there and I’m told these are “the worst of the worst”.

“You can’t have a contact visit because this man is dangerous.”

I look at the prisoner and said, “Are you dangerous? Are you going to hurt me?” And he sort of laughs.

And I always ask the attorneys – sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t win – to get them out of there, get them into a contact visit because I’d rather have a contact visit. I mean, why would I want to talk to someone through a glass plate? How much of a therapeutic relationship can we develop through a glass plate? So I’d ask that the restraints to be taken off and that we have a contact visit. The lawyers argue for them. We go to court over it. We’re going to court in Ruiz over it next month.

And I think it’s very important because I’m talking to a human being. I don’t need someone sitting in the chains on the other side of an indestructible window.

Super max came along in the ’80s. They were what I call a historic wrong turn. There was unprecedented violence in the prisons. The prisons were out of control, mainly because the administration didn’t know how to run prisons, and the crowding was out of control; they were at 4, 5 times their design capacity and there were lots of fights and lots of murders going on.

So I said – and everybody who thought about it said – “Well, you ought to un-crowd the prisons. Stop the war on drugs. Stop throwing people with low-level drug offenses into prison, and making them too large to run so the guys can’t have rehabilitation programs.”

And the system said, “No, that’s not the problem. The problem is we’ve got super predators in here, and we need to lock them up even more inside the prison.” So they invented the super max. It was a historic wrong turn.

What they should have done is downscale the prisons, send an awful lot of people home and into drug treatment in the community and various other things. And they should have done rehabilitation. Instead, they were dismantling rehabilitation so when people get out of prison, they don’t have anything they can do out in society. So it was a historic wrong turn.

I did a – there’ve been some studies about violence, race in prisons, and here’s what they studies say: With the advent of super max, the violence rate has gone up. Hello? The super max was invented because they said the violence was due to super predators, we’re going to lock them up in super max. They did that and the violence rate went up. How much would it take to recognize a failure?

In Mississippi, I was the expert in several lawsuits. We had a series of lawsuits. The ACLU National Prison Project brought the suits, and this was about Unit 32 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. In the course of the lawsuit, we convinced the state to downsize their super max. So they went from 1,000 people in Unit 32 to 200 people, including 90 on death row. So they had 110 left.

When they did that, the super max advocates would predict the violence rate would go up because you let the worst of the worst out. Right?

Well, actually, what happened is the rate of violence in the entire Mississippi prison system went down. The rate of disciplinary write-ups went down. And the prisoners with mental illness were ordered out of the SHU – I’m very happy to announce – and they went to a step-down unit where they would get mental health care and their rate of disciplinary tickets went drastically down. Because when instead of beating people who have mental illness, you actually treat them, they stop misbehaving.

So that’s the experience of Mississippi.

I’m going to stop there.

Response to question from the audience:

…I think it has a lot to do with ideology, with basically publicity. And that is, this country is into demonizing people instead of serving the disadvantaged. We’ve done away with the social safety net. We’ve stopped public mental health. We don’t provide health care for people without means. And we don’t provide homes – richest country in the world and we have unprecedented homelessness. And then what do we do to explain that? We demonize people.

So what’s happening in the super max prison is a group of people are being chosen as the scapegoats to demonize. They’re not the worst of the worst. They’re not violent. They don’t present a security risk in the prison.

Take, for example, death row. In California, death row is not inside a super max, although they have – in the adjustment centers they have a moveable wall and what happens is a bunch of guys in the adjustment center are in death row and there are a bunch of guys in general population, and they have a wall they move up and down the adjustment center depending on what proportion of people in segregation come from death row and what people come from the general population prison.

There is absolutely no penological objective in putting death row inside a super max. In about 30 states, death rows are inside super maxes. What is that about? I think it’s about publicity, that is the guards, for instance, and legislators want to say “These are the worst of the worst. These are heinous criminals, and you should give us some more money to guard you against these awful, heinous criminals.” So death row is well-known to be a site of very little violence. Most of the guys on death row are involved in their appeals; they’re not interested in hurting anybody. The gang warfare in death row is minimal, and they stick death row inside super max. What’s that about? It’s about publicity and the media. It’s not about penological objectives and security requirements.


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